PROVIDENCE — A controversial Fall River-based developer is looking to demolish an 1877 building in the College Hill neighborhood to construct a five-story, mixed-use property, sparking concerns over the building’s potential historical significance.
Representatives for Walter L. Bronhard, who owns dozens of properties in the neighborhood that largely cater to college students, presented plans to redevelop 108-110 Waterman St. on Tuesday night before the Providence City Plan Commission. The commission did not approve or deny the project, but voted to continue the matter for further study until a Sept. 19 meeting.
According to plans submitted to the city, Bronhard wants to replace the existing structure with a 60-foot building that would have commercial space, a rooftop deck, and 26 residential units that would be a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. On Sept. 19, Bronhard will seek the commission’s approval of its master plan, needing a dimensional adjustment for height as his plans exceed the four-story, 50-foot height limit that the area is zoned for.
The city’s principal planner, Choyon Manjrekar said the Department of Planning and Development is concerned that the roof deck, which would be accessible to residents, would have “negative effects” on the neighborhood due to noise.
Representing Bronhard, Attorney John J. Garrahy said he often thinks of rooftops like “swimming pools” — they are not always used. He said his client could reconsider the roof deck, but that it’s a “desired amenity” he wanted to keep in the plans.
The existing structure, first constructed in 1877, has a distinct, “Queen Anne or late-Victorian era” style, said Manjrekar. The property is not located in a local historic district, but it is listed in the College Hill National Register Historic District. Demolishing it could “have an adverse impact” on the national register historic district, he said, and should be further studied.
The property currently houses apartments; Kung Fu Tea, a bubble tea store; and Wong’s Kitchen, which has been in business for more than three decades serving Vietnamese Pho and hibachi dishes. Bronhard has owned the property since at least 2008, according to the city’s real estate records.
Garrahy, who has long represented Bronhard, pushed back against questions regarding the property’s historical significance.
“Nothing is going to change with respect to research. The building is the building,” said Garrahy. “No amount of research is going to inform your decision.”
Currently, Garrahy said, the property is not handicap accessible and the rear of the property “does not appear to look significant at all.” While he “hears the concerns” over its age, Garrahy said the property has been “chopped up,” and steps to preserve it have never been taken. “There are no restraints,” he said.
“If we weren’t here for a land development project, we could demolish the building just by going to the building official,” said Garrahy pointedly. “Areas evolve over time. Sometimes old buildings have to make way for new buildings. That’s the case here.”
Bronhard has previously been the subject of critiques from neighbors, including those voiced by Councilwoman Helen B. Anthony, that have pitted the developer against some community members due to issues related to noise levels, parties, and allegations that he has failed to keep up with maintenance of his properties.
Most recently, in February, Bronhard was approved to redevelop 116 Waterman St. into a 25-unit apartment building with a single commercial unit on the ground floor. The approval came after a contentious city plan commission meeting where a letter penned by Anthony was read by Ward 1 Councilman John Goncalves, expressing her ward’s distrust for Bronhard as he “has a long history of not responding to neighbors’ concerns.” She said he often purchased homes, did not maintain them, and “jammed them full of students.”
Anthony introduced a proposal in October 2022 to ban more than more than three college students living in the same apartment building together, citing “bad actors” in her ward.
On Tuesday, the city plan commission members said they would wait to hear public comments regarding Bronhard’s plans for 108-110 Waterman St. until the September meeting.